Did Somebody Say ‘Money Politics?’

Malaysia's ruling
coalition sets out to buy a by-election

In a daring bid to
bribe the electorate of Malaysia’s Kuala Terengganu
constituency, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak dished out 583
government contracts on January 10 in a “lucky draw” to
every small Malay contractor present at the town’s state
secretariat building. 

The government of Prime
Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is in a no-holds-barred fight to hold
the seat against a resurgent opposition in a January 17 by-election.
It became vacant when Razali Ismail, who represented the United
Malays National Organisation, died suddenly in November. It is the
second by-election since disastrous national elections last March
that cost the government its two-thirds majority for the first time
since Malaysia became a nation. The first, in Penang, was won
resoundingly by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. Badawi himself is
expected to quit as prime minister after internal UMNO elections in
March, having been forced out by critics within the party. Although
loss of the constituency to the opposition would not affect the
balance of power in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, loss of another
seat would be regarded by party stalwarts as a severe blow.

Although support for
the governing Barisan Nasional and the fundamentalist Parti Islam
se-Malaysia is said to be split about evenly, UMNO insiders are
extremely concerned that Wan Ahmad Farin Wan Salleh, a former deputy
home minister, a close Badawi ally, is a weak candidate.

The contracts described by Najib, valued at RM30,000 to RM 200,000
US$8,400-US$56,000) each, claimed to be for infrastructure works in
the local township, were distributed at random by having the
contractor to come to the stage to click on a computer. Upon pressing
the button, a contract would be awarded, details of which would
instantly appear in a big screen in the hall.  Thus the
contractor would walk home with his “prize” (a contract
with a pre-determined price), with no questions asked on his track
record or suitability for the works assigned.

 Najib, who
launched these innovative awards, claimed this “a world
record”, saying that “In this lucky draw, everyone wins. 
Every one gets a contract.”  He further added that if the
Barisan wins in the coming Kuala Terengganu by-election, there would
be more and bigger such contracts, so that the Class F contractors
(confined to Malays, for small contracts) would “continue to
make money and the country’s economy would continue to grow.

A Kuala Lumpur-based
political activist close to UMNO disputed the account, saying the
award of contracts was nothing new. The contracts, he said, are for
local businessmen to build roads, schools and other infrastructure
during a time of worsening economic conditions. The procedure, he
said, was done for transparency. But, he added, “it’s
definitely for the elections as well.”

But while Najib may be
entitled to claim he has scored “the world’s first”
for having satisfied every one of the hundreds of contractors
present, few can share his pride over such a bizarre method of
disposing government infrastructure projects.  For a start,
infrastructure works contracts are usually awarded gradually over a
period of time, as and when the needs for such works arises, as
determined and initiated by the engineers and the local authorities.
These contracts are never awarded in a torrent of hundreds within a
single day anywhere in the world.  Granted that this may be part
of the stimulus package announced earlier to counter current economic
hardship, there is no possible justification to cram such a
staggering number projects in one go, especially when these are
confined in a small township like Kuala Terengganu.  Needless to
say, massive waste and redundancies will be the inevitable
consequences.

Then, what about the
track records and skill compatibility of the contractors with respect
to the projects at hand?  Without proper interview and scrutiny
of the awardees, how can the government be certain that the projects
are awarded to the right contractors?

Next, there is the
question of price.  Without tenders or negotiation, how can the
government ensure fair pricing?  In fact, over-generous pricing
is expected, or else Najib would not have said: “I see everyone
present here is jubilant and clapping his hands, every one has got a
government contract, how can they be not grateful to the government
and not strongly support Barisan Nasional?” (Sin Chew, Jan 11)

For this move, the
Barisan was promptly condemned by the National Institute of Electoral
Integrity as abusing government machinery to dish out financial
benefits during an election campaign. But it is but one of an
endless series of similar monetary inducements amounting to tens of
millions of ringgit in the form of cash payments and allocations
handed out by the Barisan in the Kuala Terengganu constituency since
the runup to polling.
{mospagebreak}

On the same day (Jan
10) as Najib handed out the “lucky draw”, he also handed
out RM8 million to 20 religious schools, which are mainly located in
Terengganu state. Recognizing the minority 8,787 Chinese votes -- 11
percent of the total -- as pivotal in this election, the Chinese
community has been bombarded almost daily with allocations and cash
payments totaling no less than RM12 million, such as:

  • RM3.3 million for
    construction of a new community hall.

  • RM2.8 million for
    furbishing a completed hall in a Chinese school.

  • RM3 million for 10
    Chinese schools

  • RM2.7 million cash
    distribution to 9,000 Chinese for the coming Chinese New year (this
    annual payment was brought forward to reap the goodwill of Chinese
    electorate for the coming poll).

  • Miscellaneous
    payments to temples, guilds and other communal bodies.

All these financial
bonanzas, handed out within the few days since nominations on January
5, are clearly intended to induce voters to vote in favour of the BN
candidate, and therefore could be construed to constitute “bribery”
as defined in paragraph 10 of the Election Offences Act 1954, for
which the culprits are punishable as prescribed in paragraph 11 of
the same act. 

The election commission
under the new chairman Abdul Aziz Yusof, who vowed to ensure a clean
and fair election, has remained silent, as has the newly formed
Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which prides itself as a
replica of the famed Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)
of Hong Kong,.

Such a monetary assault
on the electorate, combined with the daily brainwashing by the
Barisan’s propaganda machines, also known as the mainstream
media (local newspapers and TV channels), has once again made a
complete mockery of our election as cornerstone of a democratic
system of government.

With all the
institutions tasked to uphold the rule of law either unwilling or
incapable of fulfilling their constitutional roles, it is now left to
the 80,000 voters of Kuala Terengganu to play as guardians to uphold
justice and democracy by disciplining the wayward ruling party with a
negative vote.

In this connection, it
is heartening to take note of how neighboring Kelantan has valiantly
fought off similar assaults by UMNO/BN for the past two decades.
 Under the corruption-free administration of PAS, the people of
Kelantan, who are almost completely Malay Muslims, have successfully
overcome persistent coercion and temptation presented by the UMNO/BN
federal government through abuse of federal authority and improper
monetary inducement.   No doubt, their devotion to Islam,
which abhors corruption as a grave sin, must have been an important
factor that contributes to their moral courage.

Will the Terengganu
Muslim constituents, who form 88 percent of the Kuala Terengganu
electorate, prove to have the same moral strength as their Kelantan
brothers? And will the minority Chinese constituents gaze beyond the
immediate monetary gains to vote for change – a change that
would mean the rejection of a defunct political power and one step
closer to turning a new leaf for the nation?

Coming at a time of
power transition following the political tsunami of the 2008
elections, the outcome of this by-election will have a significant
impact on the country’s political development.  It is
therefore earnestly hoped that the people of the constituency will
rise to the occasion to make the right choice for the nation.

Kim Quek comments
regularly on Malaysian political affairs.

 

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